Rock art

Kakadu's rock art (gunbim) represents one of the longest historical records of any group of people in the world. It is also one of the reasons Kakadu has received World Heritage status. The paintings provide a fascinating record of Aboriginal life over thousands of years. With paintings up to 20,000 years old, this is one of the longest historical records of any group of people in the world. For more information download the Kakadu rock art fact sheet.

The sites

There are many rock art sites open to the public in Kakadu National Park. Look for naturalistic paintings of animals, traditional x-ray art, and paintings of early contact with European people.

Here are some links to information about our more iconic and accessible rock art galleries at Kakadu.

The cultural connection

For aboriginal people, art is an expression of cultural identity and connection to country. Generally, the act of painting was more important than the painting itself so many older paintings have been covered by more recent paintings: the artist was not concerned about preserving an image for posterity but simply wanted to paint to tell a story.

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For Bininj/Mungguy many of the older paintings were done by spirit people. These form a continuous link with traditional beliefs about how the landscape was formed and Aboriginal laws established. The rock art also provides an insight in to Bininij/Mungguy culture by showing objects, animals and activities familiar to people today.

There are also many archaeological sites in Kakadu that reflect how Bininj/Mungguy have managed the country over thousands of years. Sites include occupation deposits in rock shelters, quarries where stone material was extracted and processed for tool making, human burial sites, stone or bone arrangements, surface scatters of stone, and earth and shell mounds.

The artists

Mimi spirits were the first of the Creation Ancestors to paint on rock. They taught some of the Bininj how to paint and other Bininj learned by copying Mimi art.

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At the end of their journeys, some Creation Ancestors put themselves on rock walls as paintings and began djang (dreaming places). Some of these paintings are andjamun (sacred and dangerous) and can be seen only by senior men or women. Others can be seen by all people.

The importance of rock art to Aboriginal people

Rock art remains relevant to Bininj/Mungguy as the works depict objects still used, animals still hunted, and activities people still do.

The rock art in Kakadu was painted for a number of reasons.

  • Hunting - Animals were often painted to increase their abundance and to ensure a successful hunt by placing people in touch with the spirit of the animal
  • Religious significance - At some sites paintings depict aspects of particular ceremonies
  • Stories and learning - Stories associated with the Creation Ancestors, who gave shape to the world were painted
  • Sorcery and magic - Paintings could be used to manipulate events and influence people's lives; fun-for play and practice.

The stories and knowledge associated with many paintings often have a number of levels. Younger people and non-Aboriginal people are told the first level, known as the 'public story'. Access to the 'full story' depends on an individual's progression through ceremonial life, their interest, and their willingness to take on the responsibilities that go with that knowledge.

Mineral paints

The colours in the Kakadu rock art paintings come from several naturally occurring minerals.

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Of all the paints, haematite lasts longest. This is why the majority of old paintings that you see today are completely red.

To make the paint the Creation ancestors crushed the pigments on a stone palette and mixed it with water to make a paste. They made brushes from human hair, chewed sticks, reeds and feathers. Sometimes, they would blow wet pigments from their mouths around objects, to create a stencil. You can see hand stencils like this at Ubirr and Naguluwurr.

Several naturally occurring minerals are used to make the basic colours common in rock paintings.

  • Haematite - An iron-rich rock used to make red
  • Limonite and goethite - Used to make yellow/orange
  • Ochre - An iron-stained clay that is used to make red, orange and yellow and can be made darker by baking it in a fire before grinding
  • Kaolin (pipeclay) and huntite - Used to make white
  • Manganese oxide and charcoal - Used to make black, although charcoal is not a mineral and does not last long

Conserving rock art

Rock art is extremely important to the Aboriginal owners of Kakadu. It is also an important historic and scientific record of human occupation of the region. Rock paintings are generally found in sheltered areas away from the direct effects of the elements, but even the most protected sites can be damaged by the actions of water, animals, insects, plants and people.

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In Dreaming painting, use special paint, ochre, blood. Come back with that feeling. Ceremony painting is not for everyone to see. Top business you can't see it. Go through your body and give you knowledge, Dreaming. You might dream. Good one. -Bill Neidjie, Bunidj clan, Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre

Protection

Rangers do what they can to prevent and protect the rock art. Boardwalks and handrails prevent both people and animals from touching and rubbing the paintings. Boardwalks also prevent dust from being stirred up and coating the paintings.

Pruning, clearing and controlled burning help reduce risks from wildfire and plants rubbing against the rocks.

Rangers regularly remove nests and tunnels made by wasps and other insects. They put silicon drip lines around paintings to redirect water flow away from paintings. This also reduces lichen and mould growth over the paintings and chemical rock weathering processes.

Restoration

Major rock art restoration work in the park is uncommon but during the 1990s the deteriorating layer of white paint used in the X-ray figures at the Lightning Man art site was cleaned and consolidated.

Dating rock art

It is difficult to more accurately assess the age of the rock art in Kakadu. The thermoluminescence dating technique has been used in Kakadu to date the sand surrounding pieces of ground ochre to 50 000 years ago. Used pieces of ochre provide good evidence that there was artistic expression of some sort at this early date, although not necessarily rock art.

Modern art

Bininj/Mungguy artists continue to paint on bark, paper, canvas and fabric. In some cases, the act of painting puts artists in touch with their Creation Ancestors - a powerful experience.

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Aboriginal artists still use ochre for their paintings, but often use paper or canvas rather than the traditional bark. Didgeridoos, clap sticks, carvings and hunting tools are made from different bush timbers.

Women have a long tradition of collecting plant fibres and bush dyes which are woven into baskets, mats and jewellery pieces. Another increasingly popular art form is screen printing, applying traditional and contemporary designs onto fabrics.